Friday, April 29, 2016

Pantera - Cowboys From Hell

ATCO Records: 1990

Many musicians reinvent themselves to keep pace with changing trends. Some even succeed in doing so, avoiding the ‘bandwagon jumper’ label while contributing something worthwhile to the new sound in the process. Incredibly rare, however, is the act that not only adapts, but forages a new path unheard of before, and thrives as a result, spurring their own legion of bandwagon jumpers. How many are there even? Radiohead’s Kid A was a fascinating exploration outside the band’s comfort zone, but it wasn’t a reinvention of the group. The Beatles were constantly evolving in their songwriting, but one can still trace it as a natural progression, not an abrupt change. Gary Grice, formerly The Genius, now more commonly known as GZA, made a remarkable turnaround from debut to sophomore album, but would it have happened had his cousin The RZA not created the Wu-Tang Clan for him to feed off?

I really can’t stress enough just how astounding it is that Pantera came from a cliché, unremarkable glam metal band in the ‘80s, and instantly wiped all that history away with Cowboys From Hell. It didn’t hurt that this was their first major label record, thus pretty much their first real exposure outside their local metal scene. And that’s how the boys from Texas wanted it too, completely abandoning everything about their look and sound of old in favor of getting down and dirty as all the biggest thrash bands were doing. The transformation was so radical, so thorough, so complete that many figured Cowbows From Hell was Pantera’s debut. Maybe a few super hardcore fans from the area knew otherwise, but even they had to be astounded by how effortlessly the band pulled this off. Makes me wonder if any of the authoritative metal rags of the time knew it. Like, is there a write-up in a classic Kerrang or Guitar World issue musing on the same thoughts as above?

Whether approached as a debut or reintroduction for the band, bottom line is Cowbows From Hell is one kick-ass album, with plenty to enjoy whatever your metal preference is. There’s heavy shredding action throughout (Primal Concrete Sledge, Heresy, Shattered, Medicine Man, The Art Of Shredding), complemented by Pantera’s new-fangled ‘groove metal’ approach (Psycho Holiday, titular cut, Clash With Reality, Message In Blood). This is essentially halving the speed of trash’s brisk pace, giving more prominence to the rhythmic potential of their guitar attack.

The best songs though, are where they combine both techniques, plus throw in some gloriously melodic falsetto and dark imagery. Cemetery Gates is probably the most famous of the bunch, and maybe the most famous Pantera song period. Hell, I’ve had those Dimebag Darrell’s riffs stuck in my head for a solid week now! Another winner in this mold is chugging The Sleep. While not as structurally ambitious as Cemetery Gates’ segments, it still features a fucking epic solo from Dimebag. Holy shit, how you can not be a fan of this band after hearing it!?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ratatat - Classics

XL Recordings: 2006

The best part about taking on a friend’s music collection is how it forces you out of comfort zones. Yeah, there’ll be some overlap in taste – why would you be friends if there wasn’t some common bond in the soundtracks of our lives – but there can be remarkable differences too. I doubt folks I know have as much affinity for Neil Young as I do, to say nothing of this newfound interest in dark ambient I’m currently exploring. Likewise, my interest in indie music is passive to the extreme, with only a few items making their way to my shelves. But son, I’m getting learned on this stuff these months, exposed to names both familiar and super new to my eyes. Speaking of Ratatat…!

First, I must admit I wasn’t entirely sure what sort of music Ratatat made. I had a very good guess of course, but something about this cover had me thinking this might be trap. I mean, the roaring feline in a stark shade contrast isn’t out of place in trap logos and hype material. Plus a name that likens to the rapid-fire sounds of hi-hats and snares that trap’s made its namesake? Well damn, how are you not convinced then? How about the fact this is on CD, within a clear jewel case no less. I don’t think a single trap artist has released their music in such a manner. Hell, hardly anyone does jewel cases anymore – t’is all about that digipak action, yo’.

Ratatat are in fact a duo consisting of Evan Mast and Mike Stroud, and are also a much bigger deal than I anticipated. Right, clearly not so big that I’d heard of them before, but they’ve been going strong for over a decade now, five albums deep with last year’s offering of Magnifique. And yes, they are an indie leaning act with the guitars and such, but also injecting ample amounts of electro to their productions. This has led them to comparisons between Daft Punk, Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, somewhat blended with Radiohead, MGMT, and M83. Hoo, now is that ever one hip dump of a namedropping!

And that’s essentially what we get with Classics, their cheekily titled second LP. There’s a lot of cool guitar tones and strumming throughout, with equal amounts of tweakin’ synths and raw drum programming backing them up. Some of this sounds quite fun, especially so in the super-catchy funky licks of Wildcat, though I’m getting some serious Get Lucky feels from it, sans the vocals. And honestly, the lack of singing on everything left a number of these tracks kinda’ empty, like they needed some scratchy screaming-warbler overtop to elevate a few to higher heights. As they are, a number of cuts come off unfinished and under produced, rough for the sake of authenticity.

But whatever, Classics is apparently their most popular album, including getting the vinyl reissue treatment recently. Huh, how did I miss these guys again? Oh yeah, that ‘comfort zone’ thing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Beastie Boys - Check Your Head

Capitol Records: 1992

Either the most important Beastie Boys album, or the most forgotten Beastie Boys album, depending on who you ask. Most folks fall into the latter category, and for good reason: Check Your Head generally lacks a variety of things that made their other LPs so memorable. There’s none of the instantly recognizable hits like Fight For Your Right from Licensed To Ill, Sabotage from Ill Communication, or Intergalactic from Hello Nasty. So What’cha Want was the only single that charted, and barely so at that. Hell, for the longest time, I didn’t even realize the track was from this album. For some reason I mistook it for a Paul’s Boutique or Ill Communication cut despite hard evidence to the contrary. Maybe the title’s just been so oft repeated and sampled, I never clued in it was an actual song itself.

Even the scant ’00 albums get more talking points than Check Your Head. Though folks were divided on the merits of To The 5 Boroughs’ throw-back hip-hop, the Beasties were at least praised for sticking to the concept in face of so many changes within their scene. And Hot Sauce Committee… well, that was gonna’ get talked about no matter what. For all intents, the history most know of the Beastie Boys goes like: “GROUNDBREAKING ‘80s! Something with live instruments. The SABOTAGE video! Moar awesome videos from Hello Nasty, with robots and ninjas! Content old geezers doing raps whenever between Buddhism. Aww, man, MCA died? That sucks.” Poor Check Your Head, barely a name check.

Still, this was the first album the Beasties produced themselves, which is note worthy for sure, but doesn’t illicit the same reverent discussion that Rick Rubin on Licensed To Ill or The Dust Brothers on Paul’s Boutique do. Nonetheless, Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D returned to playing their own instruments rather than pilfer coffers of records for samples. A good thing too when they did, legalities involving cribbing other people’s music turning incredibly costly in the courts. Time to start making your own beats and riffs, drawing influence of the multitude of funk, punk, jazz-unk, and turntable trickery they grew up around. They must have had these tunes building in their head for some time too, the music tight and fluid throughout. Shame they neglected including the rappity-raps half the time.

That’s the angle most approach Check Your Head from when claiming this their most important album. It marks an evolution of the Beasties from a three-piece white boy posse with witty, hilarious immature lyrics into Serious Musicians. They aren’t so concerned with wordplay as they are with musical interplay, and had yet to really branch out into experimentation as they would in Ill Communication. They still find time for a few back-n-forth cuts (Jimmy James, Pass The Mic, Finger Lickin’ Good, So What’cha Want, Professor Booty), but they’re outliers to all the funk jams throughout Check Your Head. It’s like the boys were all growed up now. Peace out in dub with Namaste.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Synkro - Changes

Apollo: 2015

Synkro’s a name I’ve had my eye on for a few years, initially for obvious stupid reasons. Seriously, take out that ‘r’, add in double ‘e’s, rearrange a couple letters, and oh my, aren’t you looking mighty familiar. Not that it’s anything but a huge coincidence, but the alias one Joe McBride chose for himself couldn’t help but draw my attention in such a manner. Once I got past that though, I noticed his name cropping up around the Autonomic guys, soon after associating with ASC and Auxillary. Hey, that’s cool, but still, isn’t he a dubstep guy? A brief poke through his Lord Discogs dossier confirms as much, his early material finding homes on labels like Smokin’ Sessions, Dubbed Out, Box Clever, and Dubstep For Deep Heads. Right, so these labels are of the ‘intelligent’ side of the genre, all that post-future garagestep stuff that’s actually not so bad. Not my thing such that I’d want to dig into his releases any time soon though, but maybe at some point I’d check back, should a tantalizing development reveal itself in the near present. Also, a proper album wouldn’t hurt either, none of these endless EPs, yo’.

Well hey, here’s a tantalizing development I never saw coming: Synkro’s found a home on Apollo. Yep, the label that got its start as an outlet for the first selection of ambient works from Aphex Twin, and went on as a pioneer, leader, and all-around swell ‘90s label for all things ambient techno and experimental chill. They also dabbled in other trendy genres of the time (trip-hop, atmospheric jungle), and it seems this decade is no different, getting in on some of that neo-folk action. Oh, and future garage too. And after a few more singles for the famed Belgium print, Synkro finally tackled the LP format this past year with Changes.

For a debut album on Mr. McBride’s part though, this is about as safe an effort as I’ve ever heard. He made a name for himself clearly inspired by the Burial template, and much of Changes’ first half deals with the sound. There’s the distant echoes of garage soul past, haunting melodies of melancholic memories (though the looping vocal in Holding On is rather corny), and sparse shuffly grooves dubbed out to the recesses of urban alleyways. It’s all sounds lovely, and Synkro crafts some remarkably expansive spaces with his strings and pads. Don’t feel bad if you’ve a serious sense of ‘been there, heard it’ with these tunes though. It’s like listening to trip-hop in the year 2003: yeah, it still sounds good, but nothing new’s being added.

The back-half of Changes is a bit more interesting, with two gorgeous ambient pieces in Empty Walls and closer Harbour, a slowed-down jazzsteppy cut in Body Close, and a dead-ringer of a Boards Of Canada ode in Midnight Sun. Hey, wait a minute, when did this album suddenly turn into a Psychonavigation Records release? Everywhere, they are I swear.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Claude Young - Celestial Bodies

Fountain Music: 2013

Most times when dealing with a DJ or producer for the first time, the additional information Lord Discogs provides doesn’t tempt me into much further digging. So I was figuring the case for Claude Young when initially tackling his DJ-Kicks CD. T’was cool and all learning about his history, his legacy, and who he’s worked with in the past, but he’s been all over the map with his releases too. And I mean that literally, his records scattered on labels from across the globe, and undoubtedly super obscure or wallet-scorching expensive to procure. Fair enough, thought I, figuring Mr. Young would be yet another class Detroit techno guy that I’d have to sacrifice my attention in favor of several other worthy acts. It’s just the nature of Detroit techno consumption, tons of mint material only cultivated and heralded by the truly hardcore connoisseur of the genre. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

And yet, what’s this in Claude’s albums cache? A recent album released on Fountain Music in Japan called Celestial Bodies. Ooh, pretty blue nebula on the cover. Kinda’ reminds me of Model 500’s Deep Space. Quite a few astronomical titles in the track list too. The sample track, Hawking Radiation has a bumpin’ groove going for it. Is this a ‘Detroit techno guy making funky space music’ then? Mang, this just might be the Model 500 album we were all hoping for last year, but didn’t get in lieu of the retro-leaning Digital Solutions instead. Oh man, screw the Pacific import fees, time to get on this one before all the CD copies are snatched up!

That Celestial Bodies is not, in fact, a ‘Detroit techno guy making funky space music’ may come as a shock then. Mr. Young doesn’t produce much at all anymore, and when he does, his muse seems more drawn to ambient techno’s more experimental pastures. Not such a bad thing either, but man, was I not counting on a nearly full-on space ambient excursion with Celestial Bodies. Has Claude been hanging around planetariums?

There isn’t a whiff of a techno beat until the sixth track, and Domain Wall doesn’t even hit the two-minute mark. Prior to that there’s soft, harmonic tones of Exodus Earth, space drone of Observing The Kuiper Belt (Namlook legacy in the house, yo’), looping sonic doodle of Delta Cephei, spritely melodic pulses of Signals From Amor, and string pads accompanying punches of dub in Nysa. Only Observing and Signals reach any significant length, though even when the tracks get extra meat on their bones in the second half, we’re still mostly dealing with excursions into ambient. Sedna 90377 has some Detroit shuffle going for it, but is more about Claude’s old-school synth jams. Meanwhile, Cyrosleep Dreams is a lovely lullaby for our ventures to the cosmos, while Messier 86 (NGC 4406) is all ominous and creepy. Damn right it should be, the blue-shifted Virgo Cluster resident heading right for us! Projections for collision in a quadrillion years.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bob Dylan - Bringing It All Back Home

Columbia: 1965/2003

A much better introduction to Bob Dylan long-players. Hell, it just might be among his most iconic albums for a number of reasons. For one, there’s the big hullabaloo over his ventures into the realms of electric music. Hey, that means Bringing It All Back Home is actually relevant to this blog! Nah, not really, the ‘going electric’ part merely his embrace of rock music after an early career as a traditional acoustic folkie. This was seen as a Very Big Deal though, like a betrayal of sorts; musicians just didn’t cross genre and scene boundaries, yo’. You started as an acoustic folk singer, you stayed in your lane. You started as a country crooner, damn straight you weren’t offering those pipes to Motown soul. A rock band was a rock band, though maybe you might get in on that blues action too.

Point being Bobby Dylian proved one wasn’t so chained to their genre as record labels so often claimed. The Beatles could make more than simple ‘love me do’ jangles. Brian Wilson could pen tunes about things other than surfing. And most importantly, you could even meld genres together! Rock music was traditionally lyrically simple stuff, catchy little numbers intended for dancefloors and malt shops, with no time for anecdotes and storytelling. Dylan said nuts to that, retaining his wordsmith abilities without sacrificing the energetic rockabilly jaunts.

And while Subterranean Homesick Blues, Maggie’s Farm, Outlaw Blues, On The Road Again, and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream enthusiastically rock with the best of that era’s tunes, Mr. Zimmerman doesn’t just dwell on a single genre either. There’s a touch of the country in She Belongs To Me and Love Minus Zero, plus a flurry of folk songs to finish the album out. These include some of his most endearing pieces like Mr. Tambourine Man, famously covered by The Byrds that same year, and maybe-sorta’ about LSD (and if so, a much better allegory than the ham-fisted weed puns of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35). Somber Gates Of Eden is also here, foretelling the inevitable hippie burnout of the ‘70s before there was even much of a hippie movement to begin with. And if you ever need a more perfect example of Dylan’s seemingly stream-of-conscious lyricism, have a gander at It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).

I bitched some about Dylan’s singing on Blonde On Blonde, but he sounds perfectly fine here. It’s like the brisk rock tempos prevent him from oohver enuunsiating. 115th Dream hilariously starts with an aborted recording session, lending the whole album a playful vibe, and that ol’ Bob isn't always so serious about himself. Finally, Subterranean Homesick Blues is probably most famous for offering the closest thing to the first music video. True, the scene of Dylan holding up cue cards in an alleyway as the song plays was taken from a tour documentary, but it’s been so smoothly extracted from the film, it may as well be a music video made for MTV. Dudes!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bob Dylan - Blonde On Blonde

Columbia: 1966/2004

The only Bob Dylan album you’re supposed to have, even if you’re not a Bob Dylan fan. That said, do not let this be your introduction to the guy’s work. Mind, I honestly don’t know how one’s supposed to properly take in Mr. Zimmerman’s work. Every Dylan disciple will claim all his ‘60s material is essential, while the ‘70s is good, except when it’s actually very bad, but he was being intentionally bad so it’s actually good. Not that ‘80s stuff though, that was just bad-bad. Dammit though, we only have time to listen to a couple albums in our super busy lives. What’s the absolute best-best album we’re supposed to have? Blonde On Blonde apparently, but that comes with a huge caveat as far as I’m concerned.

I’m by no means a Dylan expert – the fact I’m reviewing this album is by happenstance of a former owner’s contribution to my CD hoarding. I know the history though, the legacy, the influence he’s had on some of my favorite artists. I’ve heard the iconic songs and the loving tributes. But diving into all his music? Sorry, Neil Young’s filled my need for folkie-rocker protester musician. So take these thoughts with grainy sodium, because Blonde On Blonde strikes me as the sort of album one can only fully appreciate as someone thoroughly versed in Dylan’s discography, idiosyncrasies and all.

Many call this his opus, but I’m not hearing much more here that can’t be found on his other ‘electric’ records of the era. There’s definitely a lot more of it though, which is great if you can’t get enough of that clever lyricism and metaphorical storytelling his reputation’s made on. And boy, choosing those famous, unheralded Nashville session musicians when his New York recordings weren’t up to snuff was a brilliant move, the backing tracks fun and exuberant throughout. I just wish I could hear them better in the final mix.

Right, folks come to a Bob Dylan album to hear Bob Dylan doing Bob Dylan th’angs, but damn if his cadence doesn’t grate after a while. Yes, I know this iis just the waaay he sings some-times, which is fine in small doses. For the double-LP length of Blonde On Blonde though, I completely tune out in the back half, especially so for the eleven-minute closer Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. There are some lovely words being sung, just not in the way they’re being sung, plus he recycles so many melodies from the first half, it’s like the album’s spinning wheels. And why on Earth is that harmonica so damn high and shrill, drowning out the awesome session musicians? It isn’t even all that good a’ blowin’.

By the end of it, Blonde On Blonde comes off like an endurance test for what you can get out of Dylan. If you’re totally down with ol’ Bob, every moment is mana. Methinks one need a little bracer of his other material before coming into this one though.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Velvet Underground - The Best Of The Velvet Underground (Words And Music Of Lou Reed)

Verve Records: 1989

Nearly everything you may adore or abhor about the alternative and indie side of rock music can be traced to this band. Making music that bucks the prevailing trends? Velvet Underground. Cultivating an impossibly hip image? Velvet Underground. An essential name-dropped when discussing one’s influences? Velvet Underground. Pretentious rock band fan-cult origins, that’s existed ever since rock music’s existed? I dunno, maybe Grateful Dead, but hoo boy, does Velvet Underground ever have their doozies too. Tab Lou Reed’s original band as anything less than “revolutionary”, and you’ll be met with scorn only seen in Tool’s ranks, with essays and essays of just how wrong your opinion is. Not that you’d understand them of course, the VU simply much too forward-thinking for mere Beatles or Stooges fans to comprehend, even a half-decade now since debuting with that kinda’-sorta’-maybe mediocre singing model Nico. But that was the Point, see, that underneath her natural beauty was a flawed, beautiful artistic creature, and Andy Warhol was a genius for forcing her upon Lou Reed to expose these blemishes within…

Wow, see what I mean?

The thing is, compared to other seminal bands of the ‘60s, Velvet Underground don’t even have that large a fanbase. Their albums barely charted (even when they did), and it took Lou Reed’s 2013 death to give their debut with Nico a respectable bump up their all-time standing (though the 2003 Deluxe version did pretty good in the UK). Even this particular Best Of collection, released in 1989, when the indie scene was on the rise and even sporting a little cross-over action, failed to chart. Yeah, but this is still the indie scene we’re dealing with, consisting of a passionate but disproportionate fanbase compared to the radio consuming plebs of the world.

And the VU indoctrinated wouldn’t have it any other way. This band became the sleeper sensation they did because of how far under the radar they initially flew. They hailed from New York City, when all the action in the rock world was happening in California and the UK. They made noisy dirges for a burnout generation years before the comedown had begun in earnest. Their music took recognizable signifiers of blues rock, psychedelia, and folk, but never fully embraced them to be pigeon-holed into those scenes. At a time when studio albums with the latest in production trickery were becoming the norm, these guys were rough and hideously unpolished, almost sounding like a literal garage band with decent talent but no budget. Others were making allegories to acid and marijuana, Reed bluntly sung about heroin. Yeah, small wonder so many point to Velvet Underground as a proto-punk band, a group proving you could make a name for yourself despite little being in your favor.

So yes, listening to The Best Of Velvet Underground, I do get why they’ve earned the legend, the mythos, and the storied inspiration for so many others. Just, y’know, don’t be a twat when going on about them, ‘kay?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Alphaxone - Altered Dimensions

Cryo Chamber: 2015

Cryo Chamber was initially just an outlet for Simon Heath’s own material, mostly re-issuing his Atrium Carceri back-catalog alongside his newer project Sabled Sun. Not sure whether he had intention of expanding it beyond that, but surely he knew a few like-minded brooding souls in the dark ambient scene that would fit his idea of ‘cinematic drone’. He was smart about it though, resisting releasing a glut of digital material in hopes of a few stickers. As Cryo Chamber offered CD options as well, the label would have to be a bit pickier in whom they dealt with. This has led to a comparatively smaller roster of producers on the print, but one where each is distinct from the other, where they can build a unique discography under the Cyro Chamber banner. Considering the label’s catalog has quadrupled in the past two years, I’d say they’re onto something good here.

Of course I would be saying that considering I splurged on them when they had a CD blowout over the winter months. Also consider: I knew squat about anyone else on the roster, leaping into all these dark ambient producers completely cold. Hell, I had yet to even sample Mr. Heath’s Atrium Carceri material. To so thoroughly dive into a label promoting music I’ve seldom crossed paths with in the past is one heck of a faithful leap, but one that’s paid off, nothing on Cryo Chamber disappointing yet.

Okay, I’ve spent half this review explaining why y’all be seeing a lot of this label’s material in the coming months. I already went through Alphaxone’s history in the Absence Of Motion review, and there sure isn’t much else I can add to that here. Altered Dimensions, meanwhile, is the second album the Iranian producer released on this print. That’s right, folks, it’s a reverse chronicling of Alphaxone’s output! We’re, like, time-travelers, yo’, inching ever so slowly towards Prime Alphaxone, in the long ago of 2012-ish.

As such, Altered Dimensions takes us to the more abstract explorations of Mr. Saleh’s muse, this one coming off like a journey into the geometric labyrinth-scape at the end of Hellraiser 2. None of that body-horror stuff with grotesque Cenobites lurking about, oh no. We’re in a realm where things are askew from our normal reality, familiar in construct but alien in design. There’s even something of a grounding starting point, opener Distances offering a minimalist rhythm complementing the waves of dark synth pads washing over you - reminds me of something off of a recent Ultimae Records collection.

This is definitely a ‘journey’ sort of album, letting you take in the scenery as you envision with Alphaxone’s atmospherics guiding you along. It’s never so creepy you wish to flee, abstract sounds tugging at your sense of curiosity as you exploring the unknown. It can leave you feeling isolated and vulnerable (holy cow, does Aftermath ever so), yet stronger of spirit for the journey taken. Just don’t leave the puzzle box lying about after.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Various - Almost Famous

DreamWorks Records: 2000

I didn’t care much for the movie Almost Famous. Shock, I know. How could a supposed amateur music critic like I not admire, adore, and even empathize with the story of a young rock journalist’s journey of self-discovery while on a road-trip assignment? Eh, I just don’t, not in the slightest. Though I cannot deny some allure in getting all those sweet backstage passes and being paid to hear live music, I’ve never had any aspirations for music journalism as a career. The whole profession reeks of brown-nosing hustle just to get by, to say nothing of how internet reporting has all but diminished any potential scribe’s worth to publishers. I write these little blurbs about CDs I own not for fame or fortune, but for… hmm, come to think of it, why am I even doing this? Isn’t insanity defined by doing repetitive things for no discernable benefit? Perhaps so, but this niggling OCD’s gotta’ sort itself somehow.

Anyhow, it doesn’t matter what my music blogging aspirations are, for it’s not like Almost Famous has anything to do with that. It’s an inciting incident to get director Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical stand-in, fifteen year old William Miller, on the road with Allman Brothers Band stand-in, Stillwater. The teenager bears witness to things happening during the early ‘70s rock star livin’, like singing, partying, bickering, sexing groupies in denial, and maybe a little clairvoyance along the way. Right, an impending plane crash does help to clear the air with everyone involved, but by the end of the movie, it seems no one’s really learned much from this whole tour. The band, on the verge of stardom, don’t seem destined for much beyond their ‘almost famous’ status regardless. Aside from Kate Hudson (because Character Arc), the groupies still cling to the band with the blinkered optimism being around potentially famous rock stars affords them. And lil’ William learns that, though the rock star lifestyle ain’t all what it’s cracked up to be, it’s still a vital, healing part of so many folks’ souls to outright dismiss it as horrible ‘Satan music’. Wait, maybe I’m thinking the movie Groove here.

Almost Famous is ultimately a movie with super-thick nostalgia shades for a specific era of rock music. It touches on a few of the less-favorable aspects, but not to such a degree that it’ll have Boomers questioning their love for that time. Appropriately, the music on the soundtrack features all the folky and rocker sorts that defined the ‘70s college radio waves. The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zep’, Cat Stevens all make appearances, with surprising turns from Yes, Beach Boys, Elton John, and David Bowie. It’s a good collection of songs, mostly eschewing obvious hits for tunes that fit the sort of tone Crowe was filming: laidback and carefree as the wind blows, trying to ignore that nagging uncertainty of what all this means in the end, of what the future holds. Punk, mang, the answer is punk.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sarah McLachlan - Afterglow

Nettwerk: 2003

Sarah McLachlan first came within range of my earholes way back, her oldie single Into The Fire on constant rotation over Vancouver’s radio waves. And why not, an undeniably catchy song that fed off the success of similar lady singer-songwriters of the era (Tori Amos, Sinéad O'Connor). Plus, what youthful teenage boy couldn’t help but be, erm, ‘intrigued’ by that video of Ms. McLachlan lounging about naked, covered in mud? And while I’m almost certain I heard Possession at some point too (aka: that “I’ll take your breath away” song), I didn’t give her much thought after Into The Fire, music bias against anything un-electronic dictating such youthful folly. Thus I must admit to embarrassing shock at not only learning she was still around when her ultra-mega successful Surfacing dropped, but was on the verge of becoming an industry juggernaut for female musicians. Grammys! Lilith Fair! Trance remixes! Well I’ll be darned.

After such unprecedented career fortune, Ms. McLachlan did what any humble gal from Nova Scotia would do: retreat from the spotlight for a while for some quality me-time. This wasn’t her first time doing so, ol’ Sarah taking a six-month sabbatical prior to working on Surfacing. After all the touring and fame that album wrought, damn straight she’d need another bought of recharging. This one lasted much longer though, in part due to a period of mourning after the loss of her mother, but also prepping for motherhood of her own. With all these factors in play, anticipation was high for this album. Could she meet and even surpass her song writing abilities so often exceeded throughout the ‘90s? Would she have new topics to write about, new perspectives on the way life had gone for her in the half-decade since international stardom? Might she incorporate any new production tricks, perhaps go more electronic in lieu of the popularity of all those remixes? The answer to all this is an irresistible “nah, guy.”

Afterglow is quite the apt title, the music here mostly calm and light. It all goes down easy, the sort of songs you’d hear on your adult contemporary station during the grind of work. Sarah doesn’t offer much in the way of fresh insights or innovative song craft, mostly relaying the sort of platitudes you’d expect of someone mostly content in their life. Tracks like Fallen, Stupid, and Train Wreck touch on feelings of loss, whereas Perfect Girl and Push offer messages with some hopeful outlooks. World On Fire hints at the troubles ailing a post-9/11 world, but that’s about as far outside Sarah’s comfort zone of relationship reflections we venture. Lyrically, all the songs on Afterglow are well-written and Sarah’s voice sounds as haunting as ever, but after such a long gap between albums, it’s no surprise folks came away from this tidy ten-tracker underwhelmed. Could it be Ms. McLachlan’s time in the sun had finally set?

I must “nah, guy” again, a surprising new career as an impossibly sad ASPCA spokeswoman beckoning.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Alphaxone - Absence Of Motion

Cryo Chamber: 2015

Alphaxone is one of a few aliases adorned by Mehdi Saleh, an Iranian making a tidy sum of his days releasing ambient music of various sorts. Initially it was as Spuntic, mostly releasing on long-running netlabel Enough Records. More recently he’s added Monolithic Cycle on Silent Flow and Inner Place on SUBWISE, but through it all is Alphaxone, essentially the dark ambient yang to the other projects’ more soothing yin. This alias bounced around a few digital prints, and looked set to find a permanent home with fast-growing Kalpamantra. Maybe Mr. Saleh felt his material was getting lost among the many, many releases on that label though, and thus found a new home with Cryo Chamber as they started their expansion. Makes sense, what with Simon Heath looking to nurture a cultivated roster rather than toss any and all submissions out and see what sticks. Plus, y’know, having your material on an actual physical medium couldn’t have been too shabby a deal maker either.

Absence Of Motion is the third Alphaxone album on Cryo Chamber, and seventh released in the past half-decade. If I can glean any sort of progress with Mr. Saleh’s project in this time, it’s been a gradual shift from dark, droning abstraction and bleak atmospherics of his earlier efforts, to looking outward and upward into spa-a-a-ace. Or, wait, his first album, Nucleus MS-106, has a close-up photo of the Moon, so is he making his way back to the cosmic source? Can’t say I’m that curious to find out, so let’s go with the Cryo Chamber narrative instead. Alphaxone came in with the dark and abstract, and is gradually expanding to the unending above and beyond. Something like that.

Mind, we’re not quite in the deep realms of the outer reaches. Even with track titles like Long Eternity, Space Continuum, and Celestial, there’s a sense we’re simply hovering in our planetary atmosphere, the wonders above forever out of reach despite our longing to explore. But remain stuck we are within our Inner Horizon, physically bound by the gravity of our X-Land, stranded, um, Close to home?

Okay, I’m extrapolating meaning out of this album based mostly on track titles and cover art, as the music within is mostly of the dark, droning sort with melancholic pads permeating the sparse tone throughout. And honestly, there isn’t that much difference between the nine tracks offered, Alphaxone not one to provide the sort of distinct narrative as Sabled Sun or other dark ambient sorts do. At most Absence Of Motion provides a suggestive hand for one reading, but this sort of ambience is quite open for interpretation. Or perhaps none at all, simply existing as mood music for its own sake without any specific need or wont for in-depth analysis. Can I help it if I’m getting into this stuff because of my brain’s unyielding need for canvas painting via sounds, harmonies, and timbre? No, I cannot, which is why I splurged on Cryo Chamber’s back catalog, y’dig?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

System 7 - 777

Big Life: 1993

The briefly-lost System 7 album, if you were an American fan of the duo. Having named it 777, when they had already utilized the three-digits as their alias and self-titled debut within the U.S. (legal issues), poor Caroline Records couldn’t have been happy. What, name it 777²? Maybe so, but it probably wasn’t worth it to Caroline.

First they’d have to renegotiate distribution with another label, System 7 having left 10 Records and all. 777 was essentially self-released by System 7 by way of their own Weird And Unconventional Records, a brief offshoot of Big Life who’d served as an outlet for the likes of Yazz, Coldcut, and Drum Club. If Caroline eventually settled on a new deal with Weird And Unconventional, System 7 had already settled in with another Big Life sub-label, Butterfly Records, by which point the Point 3 series had hit shelves. So Caroline gave up on System 7 (re: 777), but that didn’t stop another label from grabbing the rights to 777 (re: System 7) distribution, Astralwerks! Only they didn’t care about 777 either (re: the Big Life record), as the Point 3 series was getting most of the critical kudos at the time. They released that as the double-CD System 7.3, leaving 777 an import curiosity for System 7 fans. That is, until good ol’ Hypnotic, seeing a popular European act’s LP with no American distribution to its name, snagged up the album for a 1998 release. But hey, at least by that point they could use the System 7 band name again!

My GOD, does Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy ever have a convoluted history with distribution. No wonder they went proper independent with A-Wave after the turn of the century. As for why they left 10 Records in the first place, I haven’t a clue, but considering how their debut had a rather radio-friendly slant running throughout, and this one most definitely does not, I can only speculate. And I shall! See, 10 Records was a sub-label of Virgin, and though the print nurtured a few leftfield acts, System 7 strikes me as the sort of album aimed for a little UK dance chart action. In that regard, it utterly failed, earning none of the sales The Orb garnered, even with Mr. Doctor Alex Paterson on hand. But some good came of it too, getting chummy with techno legend Derrick May for the lasting standout tracks from that album.

Hillage and Giraudy must have felt something good from that too, because 777 is quite techno throughout. Hell, A Cool Dry Place with The Orb is practically Hawtin-level minimal, though with plenty o’ spacey guitar wails giving it a distinct tranced-out vibe. Meanwhile, 7:7 Expansion’s a fun proto-goa tune with Tony Thorpe and Youth, and the back-end goes deep in the floating ambient dub. There’s still a sense of System 7 figuring things out with their sound, but as a collection of hippie techno-trance, 777’s pretty good for the year from whence it came.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sublime - 40oz. To Freedom

Skunk Records/Gasoline Alley Records: 1992/1996

Practically the sole reason we get to hear Smash Mouth covers in kid’s movies now, these guys. Maybe the So-Cal ska scene would have pounded the late ‘90s pop charts regardless, bands like No Doubt and Sugar Ray inevitable. When folks namedrop their (admittedly small) lists of Very Important American Ska Bands though, Sublime is almost always at the top, regional legends that inspired many groups to fuse their own offerings of punk and reggae without a care in the world. By the time wider North America was ready to fully hop on the Sublime paddy-van though, lead singer and guitarist Brad Nowell had sadly succumbed to his struggles with heroin, effectively putting an end to the group. Right as they broke through the mainstream with the single What I Got. Right as the ska scene was set to capitalize as it never had before or since. That takes some serious heart and personal ethics for members Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson, disbanding the band in respect for their fallen comrade. Besides, they could still make bank on their small back-catalog anyway.

Even though ska was barely an afterthought of popularity in the early ‘90s, it’s easy to hear why Sublime caught on the way they did. The band could effortlessly switch between reggae offshoots and thrash punk, sometimes even within the same song. Throw in nods to hip-hop along the way, and you’ve a sound that’s never pigeon-holed into any specific scene, yet remains appealing to fans of either genre. Sealing it though, was Sublime’s heavy emphasis on detailing all the carefree, irresponsible down-in-the-dumps aspects of lower-class life in Southern California. Wiling the days away getting stoned, getting drunk, hooking up and miserably breaking up, wandering from house party to trailer party to skate park party to gig party, yet all with a sunny disposition as only ska music can provide. These guys may be on the skids, but damn if they don’t sound like it’s a fun time being there. Hell, this debut album of theirs was practically all recorded by breaking into a studio in its off hours, only adding to the reckless living allure many a skater, pothead, and general teenager of the ‘90s gave ‘em.

As a debut, 40oz. To Freedom is an incredibly strong album, giving us a taste of the Sublime stylee in spades. Ska! Reggae! Punk! Hip-Hop! Blues? Koom-baya sing-along’s? Whatever, this was the soundtrack to many a house party across the Western seaboard, steadily gaining popularity as everyone who came within earshot had to get a copy for themselves (and their own house parties), seeing several re-issues along the way. Once MCA picked the band up for wider distribution, a few tracks and samples were removed due to copyright claims, and it became a point of pride if you could boast having an original ’92 version in your hands. Being down with Sublime before anyone knew of them and all. I, ah, don’t have such a copy. I t’was no skater.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

EDM Weekly World News, April 2016

First Ish' showed me a picture of some silly DJ at Ultra. Then I stumbled upon an unrelated article providing me with details of his stage name. Then we discovered the sort of music he plays ('weeaboo trap'? ...*sigh*). And now, thanks to some expertly experted journalistic expertise, we've possibly unearthed the answer to the question everyone's been asking since this strange individual emerged on the scene: who is DJ Kid Diddler!?



Other possibilities are Stupid Sexy DJ Ned Flanders, and DJ John Galt.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Various - Time Warp Compilation 07: Loco Dice (Original TC Review)

Time Warp: 2007

(2016 Update:
I didn't talk much about Loco Dice in this review, beyond the music he selected and mixed on disc. We're nearly a decade on though, and plenty's gone down in Yassine's career in that time. He continued rising in the ranks of trendy DJ circles, established his own print in Desolat, and has maintained his presence and brand in all corners of minimal and tech-house circuits. Great for when the sound was the hottest shit on the market, but it's since substantially receded, and Loco Dice's stock has... pretty much stayed right where it's always been. Never at the
very top of his scene, but still popular enough that any talk of falling off is absurd. Of course, a bunch of cooler music has overtaken minimal as the fresh hotness, but Dice's brand is much too entrenched to go quietly in the night. He's here for the long haul, with whatever great or bleak expectations you expect of the chap and this sound.

As for this Time Warp set,
jay-zeus was it ever a slog to trudge through again. The first disc has a nice dub groove going for a while, but is so mind-sapping repetitive I flake out on it midway. CD2, meanwhile, is engaging throughout for curiosity of whether the plonk-donk-bleh sounds can go anymore absurd. Oh indeed they can, brah'. We pretty much gave up trying to 'get' minimal after this at TranceCritic.)


IN BRIEF: Neo-chill.

The Time Warp festival in Germany is a fairly big deal. No, really it is! It’s been around for over a decade and often secures top DJ talent like Sven Väth, Carl Cox, Speedy J, Paul van Dyk, Adam Beyer, DJ Hell, Laurent Garnier, Richie Hawtin, and so on. In recent years, it’s even gone on to become as much a media arts festival as a musical one.

Still, there are a great number of folks who aren’t aware of it. This is mostly due to the fact Time Warp isn’t your typical electronic music gathering. Firstly, as most of those listed DJs will hint at, techno tends to be the focus. A few other genres are invited, of course, but this is a festival with phrases like ‘pushing the boundaries of musical innovation’ and ‘showcasing forward-thinking arts’ are gospel. Fortunately, the air doesn’t suffocate with hipster pretentiousness but Time Warp certainly doesn’t have the mainstream in mind when they promote themselves.

Anyhow, like any good festival, Time Warp provides a yearly DJ mix for folks to either remember it by or find out what they may have missed. A noticeable path towards the minimal sounds of techno has become apparent over the years and, perhaps predictably, 2007's edition has taken the full plunge. The man behind the sequencing this time out is none other than possibly one of biggest rising names in the minimal scene: Loco Dice.

I think the main thing you need to be aware of with Time Warp ‘07 is this isn’t much of a mainroom release. Sure, minimal has promoted itself as such in recent years, especially ever since most reputable magazine gave the music their official blessing. However, even though you’ll see many minimal acts headline now, this music is still primarily focused on subtlety and nuances, atmosphere and soundscapes; euphoric melodies or pummeling rhythms need not apply. Essentially, minimal is to techno what deep house is to, um, house.

Loco Dice is given two discs to work with here, each with slightly differing tone. The first is more atmospheric, with dubby sounds and the odd synth wave rolling through. Meanwhile, disc two takes us deeper into the murk, with a few token nods to the naughtier side of techno as well. His mixing is silky smooth, with transitions so unnoticeable, you’d think it was the same track playing for long stretches at a time. Actually, that’s part of the problem with this release.

Yes, it is all finely crafted. Yes, there are some nice sounds to be heard. And yes, Loco Dice does do minimal justice. However, this set is seriously flatlined from the start. It never builds any tension, it never leads to different ideas, and a lot of these tracks sound so damned similar to each other. A few of them are even separated by nearly a decade but you wouldn’t be able to tell unless you were familiar with the tunes. It either goes to show how groundbreaking Basic Channel (as Round Two here) was, or how lacking in new ideas the whole genre is. Since I’m not that cynical, I’ll go with the former in this case, but it still doesn’t help the fundamental problem with Loco Dice’s mix.

Which is this: anytime he lays down a track that could shift the set somewhere, the follow-up always brings you back to status quo. There are plenty of examples littered throughout, but probably most obvious is the way he ends Disc 1. The final track is from James Pennington’s Suburban Knight, a welcomed deviation of ice-cool electro breaks from the steady stream of soft beats the first disc was filled with. In most cases, a DJ will use the final track as a lead-off point to set the tone of the second disc. Not here though. Instead, we’re right back to square one with Jambi’s Lunar Park Blues, a track that could have just as easily fit into the beginning of Disc 1. And things again don’t differ much until the final track of CD2 either. Dice almost seems afraid to shake things up, lest he lose his hipster audience.

I’m sure there are a legion of minimal fans out there who’d argue there are massive differences between the tracks, yet their idea of a ‘choon’ moment is when the next song has a crisper hand-clap. But yes, there are good tracks scattered about: DJ Emerson’s paranoid Ring My Bell; Plastikman’s space acid Glob; the relatively funky Berlin Has No Cows from Serafin. And even if sonic surprises are few, Loco Dice’s mix does maintain its mood throughout, which at the least does make this release pleasing to throw on as background music.

The casual consumer should still be cautious with this release though. Minimal hasn’t always been the friendliest of genres to dive into but at least the likes of Richie Hawtin have made it somewhat inviting. However, Loco Dice isn’t quite as interested in appealing to such folk. This are minimal set for minimal fans who like their beats unassuming and their melodies subtle puzzles.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2007. © All rights reserved.

B.G. The Prince Of Rap - The Time Is Now

Epic: 1994

As he was teaming up with DJ Dag and Mark Spoon to help invent some little genre known as trance, Jam El Mar also spent time getting in on that European hip-house action that Technotronic made all the rage. Heck, if Lord Discogs is anything to go by, his first production with Bernard Greene on Rap To The World beats out Dance 2 Trance’s We Came In Peace by at least a few months. And while the latter is hailed as a Very Important Record in the annals of trance, it by no means had the immediate success Rap To The World did. Eventually his work with Dag and Spoon would eclipse anything he did with B.G., but in the early going of his ‘techno’ career, Mr. Ellmer had himself a chart star with The Prince Of Rap. All the better for making that cash-money to fund his underground projects, yo’.

Fast forward a few years, and though trance has taken off in Germany, euro-dance took off bigger, and ol’ Jam and B.G. knew they had the foundation to capitalize on a scene that gave us Mr. Vain, Rhythm Is A Dancer, and Get-A-Way. Still, name recognition only takes you so far when dozens of new acts with hit singles are continuously shoved into clubs and radio. Perhaps they suspected a little extra oomph to stand out from the glut was needed, thus bringing in one Stefan Benz to the party. Mr. Benz had been making italo disco since the late ‘80s, moving onto euro-dance as many producers of that era did, even scoring another successful act in DJ Company. Then he went onto cheese-ball hard trance and ‘hands-up’ stuff through the ‘00s, but who cares about that.

Nay, let’s remain focused on The Time Is Now, and the three big tunes off here. Though none of them did as much action on the charts as This Beat Is Hot, Colour Of My Dreams did the best amount of damage, hitting top fifteen in Germany, and even scoring number one on Canada’s dance charts. It’s got the smooth rap from B.G., a catchy chorus from Paris Red (who did the bulk of vocals on the album), and punchy synth hooks. Better is Can’t Love You, especially as Jam El Mar’s vintage, buzzing sawwave synths drive this tune throughout. Can We Get Enough? was the lead single, something of a rough bridge between The Prince Of Rap’s earlier hip-house into euro-dance fare (that bass!). All are mint tunes of euro-dance’s peak years.

The rest of The Time Is Now is practically all filler though. Decent enough if you’re a hardcore collector of this stuff, but hardly essential material twenty-plus years on. Well, except for the curious two final tracks, actual hip-hop cuts, including a posse jam in This Is How We Do It. Guess the Prince Of Rap needed to remind everyone of his American roots. He sure didn’t have much chance to show off his lyricism on anything else here.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Method Man - Tical 2000: Judgement Day

Def Jam Recordings: 1998

A four year gap isn’t that much, all things considered. ‘90s hip-hop though, things were moving fast, stars rising and falling at an unprecedented rate, fueled by an MC arms race to the top of Mount Brag-N-Swagmore. Your label could only achieve immortal greatness if you had the best talent signed to your print. Death Row had 2Pac, Bad Boy had Biggie, No Limit had Snoop Dogg, Loud had Wu-Tang Clan, and so on. Def Jam had many legends to their name too, but most of them had established careers, showing little of the spit and fire needed that propelled the emergent labels of the ‘90s to the top. As a quick signee to Def Jam after the smashing success of Wu-Tang’s debut, Method Man looked to be the breakout star of the group, one that would usher in a new generation of hungry MCs for the storied print that Rick Rubin built.

One problem though: Mr. Clifford Smith wasn’t interested in being a solo star, completely content sharing the spotlight as part of a back-n-forth (Redman, Street Life) or a crew of equally charismatic rappers (Wu-Tang, Monstars, heh). All fine and well if one’s career aspirations stay humble, but when everyone from the fans on the streets to the CEOs in the record label towers demand more, four years turns to an agonizing wait, one the Ticallion Stallion gleefully mocks in Tical 2000 through a series of phone call skits. People ranging from accountants to radio DJs to even the tribble-cultivator Trump himself all chime in wondering what the bloodclot is taking Meth’ so long with this album.

Figuring out a theme would be my guess. Of course the nearing millennium would spark some inspiration, but aside from the opening and closing tracks (Perfect World and Judgement Day), it’s not a subject touched upon. Instead, Johnny Blaze runs the gamut of witty wordplay, sexy wordplay, thug life wordplay, club don’ wordplay, and that’s about it. Hey, it’s not like the subject matter in his lyrics have mattered much of a damn - Method Man could have excelled through sheer charisma alone, his deft skills on the mic’ keeping you hooked once reeled in.

Unfortunately, even that isn’t enough to save Tical 2000 from the sin of filler. Despite folks clamoring for more Method Man, most everyone agrees there’s too much bloat given the limited amount of topics covered. No matter how solid the beats are or how hype the guest spots are (seriously, I’ve never heard Street Life sound this good!), it all turns to repetitive mush in the back-half. It probably doesn’t help that the midpoint offers a hilarious Chris Rock skit, where the comedian goes on a never ending spree of Method Man aliases that cannot be stopped by gunshot, nor rabid dogs, nor rabid dolphins. Hell, he can’t even be killed by fire, and even The Thing could be killed by fire. After a high such as that, there’s only down to go.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Method Man - Tical

Def Jam Recordings: 1994

Over three years since I dropped my first Wu-Tang Clan review, I’m finally doing a solo album from the M.E.T.H.O.D. Man. That’s just silly. Consider: I’ve talked up four Raekwon LPs, four Ghostface LPs, three from Deck, three from GZA, plus efforts from RZA, ODB, Masta Killa, and even U-God! Also consider: one Clifford Smith kicked-off the solo Wu-joint concept, his debut dropping but a year after Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). While it seemed likely a few of these MCs could sustain a career away from the Clan, there was little doubt Method Man was the breakout of the group, destined for superstar greatness in the world of hip-hop. It, um, didn’t quite turn out that way, explicitly because he never fully capitalized on all that initial momentum and good fortune. His album output has been sporadic and frequently underwhelming, yours truly seldom feeling the need to dig beyond his ‘90s output. And since his first few LPs centered on the concept of “tical”, here’s poor ol’ Cliff, way down in the ‘T’s of my CDs, thus bringing up the rear of Wu-Tang Clan solo joint reviews. Not that he’d give a shit either way.

Way back when though, everything looked peachy-keen for Johnny Blaze, his gruff charisma landing him a quick deal with hip-hop’s premier print, Def Jam Recordings. And why not, the label that gave us LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Slick Rick undoubtedly anxious to get in on that hot Wu-Tang stylee, with nothing less than the group’s star MC as part of their official roster. And for sure, they got themselves some future classics of the hip-hop pantheon with Tical. Bring The Pain oozes street swagger with all the freestylin’ lyricism as found in his classic eponymous track from Enter The Wu-Tang. All I Need is a surprisingly affectionate ‘slum love song’ establishing ol’ Method as a rough ‘n’ tumble ladies man. And Release Yo’ Delf is a fun, rugged anthem for the club. The rest of Tical though… ah, hm.

As was the case on all the early Wu-solo records, RZA handles the bulk of the beats, and as Method Man has a gruff, gravely persona, so too does the music provided. Everything sounds rough, unpolished, dragged through Shaolin grime and muck, covered in a thick fog of hemp smoke. And dear Lord, some of the bass on this is absolutely crushing, the heaviest you’ll hear on nearly any Wu-Tang album. Sub Crazy alone must have broken many a poor, unsuspecting sub-whoofer. Sometimes though, it’s too much, the bass burying Meth’ and any other MC in the mixdown - Biscuits in particular is downright indecipherable. Yet given how clear the lyrics come through in other tracks, I can only assume the muddiness is intentional on RZA’s part, maintaining the Wu’s ghetto-grit mystic even as they began their empire expansion. Personally, I dig it, but Tical is left a difficult album to get into, one capably aided with an eponymous substance.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Live - Throwing Copper

Radioactive: 1994

One of the only ‘90s alternative rock albums you ever bought in the ‘90s, even if you weren’t the sort to buy alternative rock albums in the ‘90s. You certainly remember Live (pronounced “it’s alive”) from radio play and music video rotation, but do you really replay their music much? Be honest now. No wonder the band’s earned the running gag of one of the biggest acts of that decade that no one remembers.

As a refresher, they flitted through the realms of grunge, college rock, and even a bit of country, not quite getting pigeon-holed into any specific scene, yet always welcome on the appropriate FM stations. The I Alone vid’ is practically a what’s-what of ‘90s alt-rock standards: a desolate stage shoot with requisite grunge tree, shirtless shaved member, a long-haired scruffy Reality Bites member, a short-haired scruffy Clerks member, creepy animals. Live is about the most ‘90s rock band any ‘90s rock fan will tell you existed, despite the group maintaining a decent career well into the ‘00s, even releasing a new album eighteen months ago. It, erm, didn’t sell even a touch as well as Throwing Copper.

But then few albums did in the ‘90s, Live’s sophomore effort one of the best selling LPs of the decade. This, despite the fact it only hit the top of the charts in a handful of countries, and only scored a couple number one hits out of five singles released (Selling The Drama and Lightning Crashes earning those honors). Throwing Copper was the epitome of a slow burner though, an album from a band no one knew much about, but through consistent airplay and word-of-mouth buzz positive momentum t’was built. It got folks to those record CD shops, buying Throwing Copper for themselves, as a gift for their friends, and a second copy after wrecking their first while tossing it into their glove compartment (probably). The result is a eight-million selling record.

And unlike some other mega-selling ‘90s albums, most folks aren’t so embarrassed at having bought this. Live are a solid rock band, no doubt, capably going from soft and melodic to loud and aggressive as needed. Ed Kowalczyk makes for a good, relatable frontman, telling tales of people on the struggling side of life without ever sounding condescending or ultra-angsty. Live find an agreeable middle-ground, Throwing Copper as engaging a listen as it is a nice casual throw-on; a slightly heavier Tragically Hip, is the vibe I’m getting at.

Yet for as good a rock album this is, you don’t see much in the way of retrospectives for it. Its 20th Anniversary passed by with but a token vinyl reissue, a feat even a middling rock release gets these days. More damning though is its Wiki page, the barest of write-ups offered. Nothing regarding the album's conception, recording process, interviews with band members… this, for a top selling album of the ‘90s. Amazing how something once so popular can so easily turn into an afterthought.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Tiger & Woods - Through The Green

Running Back: 2011

Was that ‘disco edit’ fad ever a short one, eh? Seemed in 2011, it was all anyone talked about in the cool branches of house music. And for good reason, the sound a welcome revisit to the funky, class sounds that built house into the house it became. After years of minimal-tech monotony and abrasive electro-slop, any return to fundamentals would be celebrated, which disco edits provided with unabashed pluck and gusto. Cool is often fleeting though, especially when centered on such a singular trick that can be rendered cliché by bandwagon copycats. It also didn’t help the micro-genre that Tiger & Woods, the very tastemakers themselves, cultivated a code of semi-seclusion, retreating from the hype train whenever they could. And a good thing they did too, capably maintaining a career as the popularity of disco edits waned in favor of the next, hot big nothing (swing house?).

It’s been half a decade since Tiger & Woods made their mark, and they’ve remarkably kept their anonymity since, continuing to use the aliases of Larry Tiger and David Woods in the scant interviews they’ve done. Fortunately, I know of a Lord That Knows All, and The Discogian One provides some clues. Not so much David Woods, or ‘Valerio Delphi’ as one alias alludes to - there’s scant material to this name in the massive database. Mr. Larry Tiger though, now here’s some interesting dirt.

Links to this name include a number of techno records as Analog Fingerprints, some ancient bangin’ acid as M. Chrome, and a respectable pile of albums and singles as Marco Passarani, which include stabs at electro, IDM, house… a varied palette, this man. While the link could just be a coincidental name-tag error within Lord Discog’s archives (it happens!), considering ‘Marco Passarani’ output suspiciously dries up right after ‘Larry Tiger’ appears, odds are pretty good we’re dealing with the same guy. A recent solo album on the same label as this one (Running Back) kinda’ seals the deal. Plus, y’know, Tiger & Woods being confirmed Italians and all.

ANYHOW, this album. The concept here couldn’t be simpler: take some disco samples, loop them a bunch, and tweak them as though they’re your own original bars in Ableton. It’s a trick that can be horribly misused and abused, but Tiger & Woods display a crafty sense of how a solid track should develop. Teasing out the builds so they never overstay they welcome, letting a vocal hook sink in without growing redundant, never falling prey to the ever-tempting effects overload. Admittedly a lot of this sounds like French house without the filters, and Through The Green does get repetitive by album’s end. Most of these tracks were out as singles prior anyway, this LP basically a formality in cashing in on their popularity. As Tiger & Woods have shown more activity this past year though, with luck we’ll see some evolution in their sound now that the fad is long past.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Michael Jackson - Thriller

Epic: 1982/2001

The only album you’re supposed to have, even if you’re not a music fan. Considering Thriller remains the top selling record ever, such a statement isn’t hyperbolic in the slightest. Chances are good you either have Thriller, know someone who has Thriller, or have heard no less than half this album in your lifetime. Yes, even you toddlers incapable of reading this. And if you’re one of those sacks that deliberately avoided Thriller because… reasons, you’ve most definitely seen or heard the covers, the parodies, the memes, or the paraphernalia that spun off from here. Michael Jackson’s opus reintroduced a generation to the concept of an album as an event, one many future pop stars continue replicating to this date with varying degrees of success.

Quincy Jones remains humble in interviews regarding Thriller’s success, the producer often stating he and Jackson were only out to make the best album that they could, not a cultural touchstone that would shape the ‘80s. C’mon, Q’, you had to know you were on some next level shit with this record. You don’t spend an inordinate amount of time and money knocking out the same ol’ R&B tunes everyone else was peddling. You go and get yourself all the best equipment and resources you have available, cross-blending and genre fusing all the fashionable black music of the time while mixing in cutting-edge studio tricks and sounds.

Classic contributions like full horn and string sections, backing soul singers, and funky-ass guitar licks. Modern technology in the form of synthesizers, drum sequencers, and vocal modulators. Obscurities like Afro-funk (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’), emulation of outlandish instruments (theremin in Thriller, Blaster Beam in Beat It), and guest spots like Eddie Van Halen in Beat It, Vincent Price in Thriller, and Paul McCartney in The Girl Is Mine. Seriously, one does not get themselves a Beatle without expecting a significant hit on your hands.

Even without the Holy Trinity of Michael Jackson singles, Thriller would be remembered as one of the greatest R&B records of the ‘80s, perhaps ever. Along with the Soul Makossa inspired chant, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ is a great slice of disco funk. Though not released as a single, Baby Be Mine’s got some serious boogie going for it. The Girl Is Mine is pure R&B sap, but delightfully charming (Shyamalan Twist: fed up with Michael and Paul’s bickering, the girl takes off with E.T.). Airy ballad Human Nature did solid chart numbers, P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) gets in on that P-funk vibe, and The Lady In My Life is a fine enough R&B standard to close out on.

But yes, we all know why you’re here. The best bassline of the ‘80s in Billie Jean. The best guitar riff of the ‘80s in Beat It. The best video of the ‘80s in Thriller. These pushed the album from ‘damned good’ into iconic status. Not bad for a genre that seldom got a whiff of recognition from gatekeepers of the old music industry.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Various - Three A.D. (Volume Three Ambient Dub)

Waveform Records: 1996

The end of an era, this compilation. Okay, ‘era’ is much too weighty a word in describing ambient dub’s time. It had a significant run in the chill-out scene, got some respectable write-ups in magazines, then quietly receded as fresher downtempo vibes and producers made their mark. Half a decade of prominence is no mean feat that those folks from Beyond Records should feel proud for. Waveform Records too, especially in reinventing themselves the years following this CD. The folks from Arizona would eventually find their way back to the dubby ambient, but as it stood, Three A.D. was their final say on the sound they built their print on. I mean, it’s not like they had much choice in the matter, what with Beyond folding the same year. Gotta’ start branching into other fields, other genres, other artists… maybe other labels to import gobs of material from.

Waveform wasn’t quite yet beyond their Beyond association, Three A.D. cribbing over half its track list from the big brother’s final compilation, Ambient Dub Volume 4 (Jellyfish). These include the spaced-out ambient techno of Spacetime Continuum’s Oracle, the jazzy dub of Another Fine Day’s In 7, the ultra-ill trip-hop of Coldcut’s Sign, the soft ethnic chill groove of Insanity Sect’s Solar Prophet, and the meditative bliss of The Starseeds’ Regina From The Future. Series mainstays Higher Intelligence Agency, Sounds From The Ground, and A Positive Life naturally show up, though why APL’s Lighten Up! was picked for this compilation, I haven’t the foggiest: it’s not all that ambient, and quite the beast on your bassbins. Skank and Drawn To The Woman are HIA and SFtG’s contributions, tracks I already have elsewhere but nice hearing again.

The lone exclusive act to Three A.D. is Real Life, a short-lived group headed by Paul Castle, with Lee Rosemore and Matt Hazelden contributing. They released a few records on Ninja Tune’s offshoot, NTone, from which their track Shark Infested comes from. I'm reminded of older Future Sound Of London, what with lengthy atmospheric builds and bleep-tronics, plus is a cool tune opening this CD on. Oh, and in case the name Paul Castle rings a bell, it’s because he’d go on to do production for Ian van Dahl, Dreamcatcher, and Marc Almond. *sigh* Another promising talent lured away by the big money lifestyle.

As a swansong for the series, Waveform tried something different with Three A.D., a light theme of future travels into abstract realms. It explains the heavier emphasis on bleep-ambient acts in the first half of the compilation, settling into more grounded vibes on the other end. Also, the art is inspired by the experimental works of Swiss scientist Hans Jenny, who used sound vibrations on various fluids and liquid pastes. His work led to future psychedelic artwork and imagery, much of which is found in ‘90s CGI. Though in the case of all the globular redforms on this CD, methinks the folks at Waveform were watching themselves some ample amounts of Babylon 5.

Friday, April 1, 2016

ACE TRACKS: March 2016

It feels so strange only doing this once a month now. Like, such a significant gap of alternate content on this blog, no longer breaking up the monotony of just reviews over and over again. Might have to come up with some other thing, but with the insane backlog I’m accumulating at present, I kinda’ want to keep trudging through first. At least finish off the last of these massive letters before venturing onto other ideas.

Speaking of, the first half of ‘T’ is almost finished, which means that big bundle of used CDs from another will finally be tackled. Including the music I was already gathering myself, we’re looking at a pile of nearly fifty releases. That’s a significant chunk of time this electronic music blog that’s gonna’ be spent talking about rock, folk, alternative rock, metal, dark ambient, pop, punk rock, and maybe a little techno too. I won’t blame if some check out until June, but surely few of y’all are just anxious to read my thoughts on bands like The White Stripes, The Cranberries, The Clash, and The U2s. Meanwhile, here’s the ACE TRACKS for this past month of March:


Full track list here.

MISSING ALBUMS:
Moodymann - Technologystolemyvinyle
Skin To Skin - Temenos
And, technically, a lot of cruddy compilations, but most of their tracks are on Spotify anyway.

Percentage Of Hip-Hop: 25%
Percentage Of Rock: 4%
Most “WTF?” Track: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry - Crazy House (how could it not?)

Hey, diversity! Boy, it sure was nice to compile a playlist with more variety compared to the previous couple months. Not that I’m treading that far from my go-to fav’ genres like downtempo dub (Sounds From The Ground, Mick Chillage), ambient techno (Si Matthews, The Black Dog), trance-pants (Stephen J. Kroos, Legend B), and quirky outliers (Autistici, DJ Hell). But with house, funk, g-funk, Detroit techno, EBM, synthwave, and alternative metal all getting a look in, March turned out a decent, interesting month’s worth of music.

But just wait for what April has in store…!
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